Last week our family went on our summer vacation and since I have
been reading nothing but academic textbooks about research, statistics
and public policy and social work theory, I needed something to read
that was purely for fun.
That is how I ended up bringing along only food writing. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles by Jennifer 8 Lee was the first one I read. How fitting that by the time I'd finished this book, my adoptive
parents (who we were vacationing with) took us out to a Chinese buffet.
Everything I'd learned from Jennifer 8 Lee was experienced first hand.
Growing up, my only experience of "Asian" food was a local joint in
town that was what I lovingly refer to as a "greasy chopstick" (like,
greasy spoon, Asian style – I know, silly). This place was teeny tiny,
and was mostly take-out. My parents typically ordered the same thing –
some kind of an egg foo young and chicken chow mein with loads of
celery and a thick gravy and the toasted brown crispy noodles in a
separate bag that we tossed on top. Our trips to Chinese take-out were
infrequent and my parents often complained about how sticky the rice
was. Like a lot of Euro-Americans, their idea of rice was Uncle Ben's
style – the kind of rice that doesn't stick together and is nearly
impossible to eat with chopsticks.
Reading The Fortune Cookie Chronicles brought me back to my
childhood, big time. I've always wondered why every little small town
in the middle of nowhere still seems to have a Chinese restaurant. Now
I know why.
As a Korean adoptee, who was raised without any connection or
knowledge about my country of origin, those rare dinners of
fake-Chinese food at the little hole-in-the-wall take out joint and the
Asian person at the register were the only small pieces of "Asia" in my
childhood. After I became an adult, I looked to dine at Chinese
restaurants where the Asian customers outnumbered the White ones; I
asked my Asian-immigrant friends and co-workers where they dined, knowing their highest praise for a restaurant was one that reminded them of home.
Thankfully, I had some caring friends who had come to America from all
over central and southeast Asia. They looked at me, and felt sorry for
me; that I was so lost and ignorant about my ethnicity. They were
patient and kind, and it is no exaggeration to say that a lot of my
cultural education happened around a table sharing a meal together.
I still submit happily to fake-Chinese food, but I have to say I
consider myself very lucky that I can choose from several Korean
restaurants now. And the true test for me will be when I learn enough
Korean cooking that I can make it at home. While I know that no matter
how true to form I become in my Korean cooking skills, I will never be
able to replace the experience of growing up as a Korean or Korean
American, I'm happy that I'm able to give my own children some of that
experience. For them, a dinner of kimchijigae, bulgogi, or chapchae
isn't unusual. They are used to coming with me to the Korean grocers,
helping me pick out ingredients for dinner. They don't flinch at big
jars of kimchi in the fridge or bags of dark, green roasted nori in the
cupboard. Even more, they are learning how to cook Korean food along
with their mom. Something that makes me wistful, because I didn't have
that for myself. I'll have to be content with having my Korean American
friends act as my mentor in that respect. As in my early 20s, it is
these Korean friends who have shown incredible kindness to me. They are
patient and kind. And what a gift they are giving me, by teaching me so
I can teach my children – whether at the stove or around the dinner